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New U.S. Visa Rules Criticized As Racial Discrimination


Many Europeans can travel to the U.S. without the hassle of a visa - same with Americans and much of Europe. But new security measures now require citizens of Iran, Syria, Sudan and Iraq to obtain a visa before they head to the U.S., even if they are dual citizens of a country where visas aren't required. Some are criticizing the new rules as discriminatory and say they could create problems for Americans who want to travel abroad. Here's NPR's Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Rana Rahimpour was at Heathrow Airport in London with her daughter this week waiting for a flight to Newark, N.J. But her visa waiver for travel to the U.S. - she's a British citizen - still hadn't come through. She called the office that oversees the visa waivers.

RANA RAHIMPOUR: And they said the reason it has been pending is because of my other nationality, which is Iranian. They said because of the new legislations, I can no longer enjoy the visa waiver services. And I have to go to the U.S. Embassy and apply for a visa.

FADEL: She couldn't get on her flight. She couldn't surprise her brother. And her fully British daughter couldn't go to her American cousin's birthday party.

RAHIMPOUR: You become British, and you pay taxes in Britain. And you think that you can benefit from the visa waiver program. And then suddenly, they tell you that, no, you're not British anymore. You have to apply for a visa.

FADEL: Her two cousins couldn't fly either, even though they haven't been to Iran in more than two decades and can't read or write the language.

RAHIMPOUR: I think this is racial discrimination. You feel that you're being punished for something that sometimes, you don't have anything to do with.

FADEL: And she says it will dissuade tourists who might want to visit Iran now that sanctions have been lifted because the new rules not only bar dual citizens from the 38 countries who could travel to the U.S. visa-free but also anyone who has visited the four countries in the last five years. The legislation was rushed through Congress last year with the support of President Obama on the heels of the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shootings. Joanne Lin from the ACLU actively fought the legislation.

JOANNE LIN: The American Civil Liberties Union strongly opposed this law, which discriminates based on national origin, parentage and ancestry. And these new travel restrictions are fundamentally wrong and un-American.

FADEL: There are exceptions - for example, if you're a journalist or aid worker traveling to the countries. Many Europeans are angry. European ambassadors warned that the law would be counterproductive, might trigger reciprocal measures and would do nothing to increase security while hurting the economies of both their countries. And dual nationals from places like Syria or Iran may never have set foot in those countries. The nationality is automatically passed down through the father. And European officials have pointed out that it's not like ISIS members get their passports stamped when they slip in and out of Syria or Iraq. Lin says it looks like both the White House and Congress seem to be trying to fix problems with the new rules.

LIN: Even now in the new year, in 2016, there has been new legislation introduced to fix the discriminatory travel restriction.

FADEL: The biggest concern for Americans is reciprocity. Iranians, Syrians, Sudanese and Iraqi-Americans are worries that foreign countries will do the same thing to them, treat them less American than fellow citizens.

LIN: That is a huge question of concern for Americans. And they're making their fears and concerns known to Congress and to the White House. And what was just introduced in Washington last week has the potential to fundamentally shake up international travel.

FADEL: Leila Fadel, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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